The Thunder got it wrong; the Warriors have a chance to get it right. Really right.For Oklahoma City Thunder players and fans, it must have been excruciating difficult to watch the Golden State Warriors wear down the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals without thinking, “That could have been us.” With NBA league MVP Stephen Curry, NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguadola, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green & Co. celebrating the first of what could be multiple NBA Championships, Thunder supporters could easily think back to 2012 when eventual league MVP Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden seemed on the verge of having a similar moment. Although the Thunder would eventually lose to the Miami Heat during LeBron James’ first title run, many around the league believed they were poised for a dominant span of title contention with the most talented core of young players assembled in more than 20 years.
But as the saying goes, “Life comes at you fast.”
After their run to the NBA Finals in 2012, Oklahoma City decide to move Harden to the Houston Rockets in a sign/trade that might have signaled the beginning of the end of its legitimate championship contender status. In today’s NBA you need a minimum of three great players to win a championship (sorry, Atlanta Hawks), so trading Harden continues to be a talking point that makes you ask, “What if?” The assumption at the time was that a small-market team like the Thunder wouldn’t be able to stomach paying big dollars to Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, likely having to pay the luxury tax to keep all three players. But isn’t a title worth it? Making less (or losing) money in exchange for a potential title is always worth it in the short term. Teams can always make more money; it’s not so easy to “buy” a title (via Free Agency moves), try as some teams might.
The other going assumption is that Harden wanted out; that’s debatable in my mind, mainly because I believe players like to play where they are wanted and valued, and I’m not sure that OKC brass led with that emotion. If OKC GM Sam Presti had been emphatic about retaining Harden throughout that last year and made it clear that the team was going to go all-out to retain the restricted free agent in order to keep their core together, I believe that would have resolved any potential uncertainty in Harden’s mind.
As Big Shot Ron and I have talked about on many occasions, the easiest way to acquire a collection of superstar talent is through the draft, and you have to give the Oklahoma City Thunder management credit for one thing: they identify and evaluate talent in the draft process better than just about any other NBA franchise. However, they’ve been struggling to replace James Harden ever since he left. Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson haven’t been the answer. In hindsight, overpaying to keep Harden would have been money and time better spent. (Forget hindsight; we said that while it was happening, but I digress.)
The Oklahoma City “Young 3” of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden—plus Serge Ibaka—is probably the most talented collection of young players on an NBA roster of the past 25 years. To break it down by draft, the Thunder acquired Durant (2007), Russell Westbrook & Ibaka (both in 2008), and James Harden (2009) in a span of three drafts. Collectively speaking, the career accomplishments of these young players thus far is impressive:
- Durant: NBA MVP; 5x All-NBA First Team; 4x NBA Scoring Champion
- Harden: 2x All-NBA First Team; All-NBA Third Team
- Westbrook: 4x All-NBA Second Team, NBA Scoring Champion
- Ibaka: 3x NBA All-Defensive First Team; 2x NBA blocks leader
The only team that comes close to OKC’s draft haul of young ballers? The current Golden State Warriors own Young 3 of Steph Curry (2009), Klay Thompson (2011), and Draymond Green (2011), with Harrison Barnes (2012) as the strong 4th option in the mix. The Warriors’ collection of talent isn’t quite as accomplished as that of Golden State, but it’s nothing to scoff at and you can see the parallels of a team on the ascent1.
- Curry: NBA MVP; All-NBA First Team; All-NBA Second Team
- Thompson: All-NBA Third Team
- Green: NBA All-Defensive First Team
In looking at the (pre-Harden trade) Thunder and current Warriors respective core of players, there are some definite similarities. 2013 MVP Kevin Durant is the obvious centerpiece of Oklahoma City’s roster, while 2014 MVP Steph Curry is the focal point of the newly minted NBA Champs. Both are literally un-guardable 1-on-1; and while Durant has been all-world since the day the Thunder moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City after his rookie year, Curry has made himself into the force he is today by developing best-in-class ball handling to compliment his deft shooting stroke. This slight distinction extends to the rest of the respective Young 3 players for the Thunder and Warriors—OKC drafted players who were great out of the gate, while the Golden State collective of “good” players just simply got better year after year to reach elite status as a group.
Indeed, for Thunder fans, watching the Warriors evolve into championship form must induce a panic attack of sorts, with Kevin Durant entering the final year of his contract and the uncertainty surrounding his future with the club. There’s a certain sense of urgency and despair around Oklahoma City that must make OKC fans believe they’re living on the wrong side of a parallel NBA universe of elite, up-tempo teams: the Warriors have their best player in place for the foreseeable future, while the Thunder do not; the Warriors are fully healthy, while the Thunder are not; the Warriors have coaching stability2, while the Thunder do not. (Heck, even the Warriors were able to beat LeBron James in the Finals, while the Thunder could not.)
All of this is to say that my only wish for the Golden State Warriors and their management team is this: continue to NOT be like the Oklahoma City Thunder. While OKC allowed Harden to move on, the Warriors should find a way to keep Draymond Green with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and continuously rebuild around their Young 3 for as long as possible3. It’s worth it in the long run.
The Warriors are already more accomplished than the Thunder while playing a similar brand of ball; let’s hope Golden State learns from Oklahoma City’s mistakes when it comes to managing talent during its championship window. After all, life does come at you fast, and you never know when that window might close.
- Although Harrison Barnes isn’t quite as accomplished as the rest of his young cohort, the Warriors bolstered their roster with the addition of Andre Iguodala.
- Despite Steve Kerr being a rookie coach, the Warriors benefited from the coaching tenure of Mark Jackson, which made the transition to Kerr rather smooth. I’d rate both Jackson and Kerr above recently ousted Thunder head coach Scott Brooks.
- It may be difficult for Golden State to keep good role players like Barnes, Iguodala, etc. for longer than a few years, as they will likely be able to earn more money elsewhere due to the resources tied up in Curry, Thompson, and Green. Thus, it’s important to keep the core of the team together and plug role players in around them.